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Water—A User’s Guide. Part One: Availability

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
July 17, 2021

The first thing that space exploration seeks is water, an essential element in what we know as life. 71% of the earth is covered by water—most of that in the oceans. Fresh water is stored in lakes, rivers, reservoirs or aquifers. The United States used 275 billion gallons of surface water per day and 79.3 billion gallons of groundwater per day in 2015. The average American family uses more than 300 gallons of water per day.

We tend to take water for granted until it is not available. In this and the next five months’ articles, we will explore issues of water that are of concern to public administrators and policymakers: water quantity, quality, delivery (infrastructure), legal and administrative issues, political issues and the effect of climate change. This article looks at the amount of water available in the United States.

Over 96% of all water is in oceans and seas; this saline water is not immediately available for human use. In the United States 90% of non-saline water is used for thermoelectric power (133 billion gallons), irrigation for agriculture (118 billion gallons) and public water systems (39 billion gallons).

The amount of water available for human use would not concern us were the population evenly distributed throughout the United States. It also wouldn’t be a concern if the population were not increasing or if climatic conditions were relatively stable. However these factors are of concern. Large population centers depend on water imported from distant areas. Los Angeles depends on water sourced from the snowpack and rain from the Sierra Nevada range. New York City receives its water from the Catskill and Delaware watersheds. Agricultural areas often rely on water from aquifers or from rivers fed by snowpacks and rain. Rivers provide power for thermoelectric turbines, delivering electricity to metropolitan areas.

The availability of fresh water from these sources has declined in the last 50 years. In 2021 the snowpack in the Northern and Central Sierra was 70% below average and rain 50% below average; this snowpack accounts for 30% of all of California’s fresh water supply. The decades-long drought in the West has threatened water sources for major metropolitan areas as well as agricultural regions and impacts consumers far beyond the West. For example, California’s Central Valley represents one-sixth of all irrigated land in the United States and is a primary source in the United States for produce such as tomatoes, grapes almonds and apricots. Drought is an issue elsewhere. Colorado farmers depend on water stored in Lake Powell, which also relies on snowpack. Even the South in 2019 experienced a “flash drought.”

In addition to decreasing water quantity in some places, water is unevenly distributed and allocated. Floods in the Midwest do not ameliorate Western droughts. Water legally allocated to farmers and ranchers cannot quench urban thirst.

The identification, allocation and management of water resources is one of a public administrator’s roles. The case of Southern Nevada demonstrates this role. In 1991, seven local water and wastewater agencies formed the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to address water issues on a regional basis. SNWA monitors the amount of water available and develops water conservation practices. It creates water use plans including a drought plan.

SNWA’s other roles include establishing standards and rules for water usage, imposing fines for misuse or waste of water, conducting a public relations program and educational programs and building infrastructure. It works with both local and state policymakers and on interstate and international compacts governing the allocation of water.

Similar cases can be made for the administration and management of water in other regions. For example, the Florida Division of Water Resource Management is charged with safeguarding Florida’s water resources and enhancing natural systems through partnering with local communities. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact fosters the sustainable and responsible use of Basin waters, including a ban on most new diversions of water from the Basin and regional goals for water conservation and efficiency.

In addition to cataloguing and monitoring water supplies, public administrators also manage advisory groups that negotiate demands of competing interests and provide public information or water supplies in a water emergency. Perhaps most important, they serve as neutral advisors and information sources for policymakers. As we will see in future articles, public administrators have many significant water-related roles.

The quantity of water is but one part of the water issue. John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, argues in his 2016 work, Water is for Fighting Over, that seeing diminishing water resources as impending doom is dangerous. When people have less water, he argues, they use less. Public administrators help citizens and governing bodies make rational decisions about water resources.

Water quality is equally important and administrators play an important role. This will be discussed in the next article.  

Author: Susan Paddock is a Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in state and local government. She currently lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030.

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